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When the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting occurred our oldest three children were 5, 4, and 3. My husband and I debated back and forth about whether or not we should tell our children about it. Could we protect them from such horrific current events? Should we? In the end, we decided to tell them. This was a good thing, because the news was everywhere and no matter how much we tried to protect them, they were going to find out. We'd rather have it come from us. Fast forward four years and our children have begun to watch the evening news with us. They have seen and learned about so much, but the violence frightens them the most.
At first, as these incidents occurred we talked about the rare circumstances. We talked about guns. If a person was mentally ill, we talked about what that meant. And we prayed... for the victims, for the guilty, and for the families and friends. But as the children began to see and hear more and more on the news, there began to be new questions and discussions. Discussion about race, religious beliefs and sexual orientation became common in our home. In recent weeks, the conversations have been daily.
Talking about what's going on in the news, especially shootings and attacks it isn't enough anymore. The kids are becoming more frightened, especially as our worst nightmares are becoming a reality. Lately I've been reflecting on how we've handled past fears and anxieties. I remember vividly when Bulldozer became obsessed with extreme weather conditions. His obsession came from fear. And so we read, and studied, and made a family plan, no matter the weather condition or the chances of it occurring. Have I ever mentioned how Bulldozer still requests to look at the moving map on the weather channel website everyday? Did you know he can identify all of the different types of tornadoes as he sees them on the news? To this day Bulldozer knows more about extreme weather than any child I know. But in the process of learning, he overcame his fears. As he gained more confidence in himself that he could handle whatever came, he was okay with any weather that might be coming our way. The family plans we put in place and practiced did that for him.
This week, I contacted a dear friend of mine. Her husband is in law enforcement. In order to set up a family plan in case of a shooter or an attack, I knew I needed to talk to someone who was an expert on this stuff. Sure enough, I received some amazing answers. I share them here because I know I'm not the only one that thinks and worries about our worst nightmares coming true. Everyone, including our children, can benefit from having a plan in place, especially when the plan is practiced and mastered.
How do we prepare a child for our worst nightmare?
1. Run and get as far away from the situation as possible. This may seem simple, but for children, there are a lot of little steps involved in this process. First, a child needs to be able to locate an exit sign and know what it is. Once they locate that sign, they need to run towards the closest one, and NOT stop for any reason. There is no time to ask questions. There is no time to look for a parent or older sibling if they are somewhere else in the room or building. They must think only about themselves and get to the exit to escape.
If a parent is right next to them, the child can grab the parent's hand. Don't ask questions, just follow the parent. It's up to the child to watch the parent ahead of them. In a situation like this, a parent is not going to have the time to look back, without major consequences that could cause the child or both to be injured or trampled on.
If a younger sibling is next to the child, it is okay for the child to help the sibling. It was recommended to us to have sibling buddies set up ahead of time when going anywhere, so there's always someone watching each other's back. But in the horrible case that a sibling or parent are hurt, the child must always know, their first responsibility is to one's self, and it's okay to continue to run, even if others can't.
Remind your children about sensory stimuli that may occur in these situations. People will be pushing and shoving. It may be dark. There may be REALLY loud noises from weapons and people around them. Even smells may throw them. It may be wet. Help them understand this and practice with varying sensory stimuli experiences at home to the best of your abilities, in safe ways, that in no way endanger or cause harm to your children in any way.
Once your child has escaped the building or area, teach them to continue to run. If you are able to set up safety points in your community, do so. But help your child understand that they will be found by someone who can help them, no matter where they end up. Sometimes your child may be hurt and can't get to the safety point. Sometimes they may be disoriented or in shock. In these cases you want your child to feel comfort, even if you're not there. Remind your child NEVER to return to look for you or siblings. When a child is unable to reach a safety point, or does and no one else is there, tell them to look for a mother with children and ask for help. In today's society, one can never know who will protect our children if they are lost, but chances are another mother with children will be the safest option. Be sure your child learns their full name, phone number, and address. If your child doesn't know this information yet or is unable to learn it, make sure the information is somewhere on them, whether on a necklace, bracelet, written in clothes, etc.
2. If you can't run, hide. Teach your children to play hide and seek. Show them how to find the best hiding spots, where no one can find them. And then once they're there, teach them to stay there until they are found, no matter what. There is always a chance that a "bad guy" can pretend he is a "good guy" and call out to find if anyone is there. Until they are found, they must stay put. Lastly, teach your child to be silent. This does not just mean no talking. It includes body movement as well. Practice breathing. Help them learn to focus attention on something that can help them remain calm, even if they are hurt. All of this may help them.
3. If you can't run, and can't hide, fight back. This responsibility is an adult responsibility. However, it is always important to teach your children that they have your full permission to fight back when in danger, if there are no other options. They are allowed to defend themselves. They will not get in trouble for this. Teach them how to fight back using their voice and their body. Assure them and reassure them of this, because in that instant, if they remember anything, they will remember what you taught them.
Now as adults, we know the chance of one of our children being in a situation like this is less than 1%. We also know that they may freeze up, just like we might. However, if we have a plan, and if we practice our plan, we have a better chance of survival. When it comes to our children, we want that more than anything else. Also remember to teach your child, that in the moment, if they forget the plan, if they don't do anything, for whatever reason, that's okay too. We know they will have done their best. Nothing is there fault. If they get hurt, or someone beside them gets hurt, they did everything right and we will always love them. Reassure them of this most of all.
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